By Arlyne Johnson

Several decades of over-hunting and illegal trade of wildlife for meat in Southeast Asia have contributed to precipitous declines in animal populations.  Even in the rural mountains of northern Laos, one of the lesser populated areas of Southeast Asia with less than 12 people/km2, villages report a continuous decline in numbers of terrestrial and aquatic wildlife along with ever-increasing effort by hunters to find wild meat.  Although Laos still harbours many unique fauna of global significance, abundance of most species is now alarmingly low.  In a bold attempt to recover waning populations, in 2008  the Lao government enacted the country’s first national Wildlife Law outlining what, how, where, when and by who species can be harvested.  The regulations aspire to protect threatened species, while also managing for sustainable use of more fecund species for subsistence consumption by the rural poor.  There are still many questions about the degree to which hunting can be managed to meet both of these needs. 

Poverty (defined as earning less the $1.50 per day) is common among ethnic minority populations living in the mountainous north of the country.  Agricultural conditions are often unfavorable and productivity is low.  Livestock husbandry skills are lacking and, according to a 2007 World Food Program (WFP) survey, livestock in rural Laos are largely kept as capital or for rituals and consumption is limited.  In northern Laos, more than 50% of children under five years of age are stunted as a result of limited intake of nutrient rich foods, and WFP asserts that the main food group that differentiates rural households with acceptable food consumption in Laos from those without is animal protein, and particularly wild meats.

In WCS-Lao Program surveys from 2002 to 2006 of over 450 households in 34 villages bordering two national protected areas in northern Laos, we found that wild meats (including terrestrial wildlife and fish) made up at least two-thirds of the occurrences of meat consumed.  The most commonly eaten were small songbirds and rodents, while larger terrestrial mammals such as small deer and pigs were consumed much less frequently.  In an intensive WCS-Lao Program pilot study in one village in 2009, we recorded all food consumption over a three-month period and found that animals hunted or collected from the wild made up approximately two thirds of the volume of all meats consumed, which was largely small-bodied mammals (<1kg), followed by fish, with small birds, insects, frogs and crabs making up the remainder of the harvest. Less than 4% of the meat was purchased from a market and the remaining came from small domestic livestock raised by the household.

The results of our WCS-Lao Program pilot study indicated that overall household food and nutrient intake was suboptimal, the diets were highly rice-biased, low in calories and fat and mainly vegan.  On average, total meat intake was only 30 grams per capita per day relative to the WFP survey, which found average meat consumption in rural households across the country to be 120 grams per capita per day.   Low intake of protein and micronutrients is likely impeding body functions – especially in mothers and young children - and increasing their susceptibility to disease and mortality. Although households are eating three meals per day, our initial analysis indicates the consumption of animal protein or alternatively, plant proteins with complete amino acids, should be six times higher than it currently is.  These findings are a stark contrast to our earlier WCS-Lao Program survey results indicating that up to 60% of households in this same area of northern Laos reported regular hunting and trading of larger terrestrial mammals from their villages. 

Unless hunting in Laos is better managed, wildlife numbers will continue to drop.  Even then, from WCS research compiled by John Robinson and Elizabeth Bennett on the sustainability of hunting in tropical ecosystems, it is clear that wild meats alone cannot meet all human dietary requirements that we are uncovering in northern Laos.  Although WFP and the National Nutrition Policy for Laos now acknowledge that effective wildlife management is a crucial component of the country’s food security strategy for rural areas, the development of other food sources and multi-sectoral cooperation will be critical for both addressing household food security and, ultimately, for achieving wildlife conservation.   If left unattended, the increasingly vegan diets, low nutritional knowledge and lack of opportunities to source meat and plant alternatives together with limited legal income opportunities will likely hamper the acceptance and effective implementation of the regulations for wildlife management, which are essential for wildlife recovery in Laos.

The CBD is currently gathering input from IUCN and others on a proposed collaborative partnership on sustainable wildlife management (CPSWM) - a global forum for cooperation and coordination in addressing wildmeat issues. It is to be hoped that this forum will help speed progress on this issue. If you are interested in this proposal please contact Rosie Cooney:

Arlyne Johnson
Wildlife Conservation Society

Johnson, A., S. Singh, S and M. Dongdala, 2005. Managing wildlife hunting and trade, In Improving livelihoods in the Uplands of Lao PDR. eds B. Bouahom, A. Glendinning, S. Nilsson, M. Victor, pp.185-190. National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute, Vientiane.
Johnson. A., J. Krahn, and S. Seateun.  2010.  Finding the linkages between wildlife management and household food consumption in the Uplands of Lao PDR: a case study from the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area.  Wildlife Conservation Society - TransLinks Program, New York
Krahn, J., and A. Johnson. 2007. Food security and wildlife management. Juth Pakai 9:17-33.
Robinson, J. G., and E. L. Bennett. 2004. Having your wildlife and eating it too: an analysis of hunting sustainability across tropical ecosystems. Animal Conservation 7:397-408.
WFP. 2007.  Lao PDR comprehensive food security and vulnerability analysis. World Food Programme, Vientiane.
World Bank. 2005. Going, Going, Gone: The illegal trade in wildlife in East and Southeast Asia. The World Bank, Washington D.C.

Photo: In northern Laos, a rural resident exhibits a locally-hunted bamboo rat for sale. Credit: Arlyne Johnson.